feeding bees how to

The minimalist guide to winter feeding

Granulated sugar can be fed to bees as crystals, syrup, or fondant.

In the past, I have cooked for my winter bees. I have made fondant, slurry, semi-hard sugar cakes, hard as rock sugar cakes, candy boards, and pollen-laced patties. I have stood over a witches’ cauldron of bubbling, boiling syrup, stirring and measuring and timing. I have used thermometers and cool water tests. I have added Honey-B-Healthy, essential oils, vinegar, lemon juice, and pollen substitutes.

I have burned myself, created massive stickiness throughout the kitchen, ruined pans, bent spoons, and smelled up the house with all manner of strange oils. But not any more. Not on your life.

Every year I’ve made it simpler and simpler, and every year the bees thrive on it. So far, this has been the simplest year ever.

Now, if I absolutely need to feed my bees, I take a bag of sugar and place it on the top brood box. I slice it open with a knife. I surround it with an empty super and cover it with a moisture quilt and lid. I’m done. It’s quick; it’s easy; it doesn’t chill the bees and they like it just fine.

Oh, yes, I hear lots of opposition:

Objection: The bees will cart it out like trash.

Truth: Not in the winter and not when they need it. I’ve seen bees remove granulated sugar when they have other food choices, but you wouldn’t be feeding if they had other choices.

Objection: They need pollen substitute in addition to plain sugar.

Truth: If they need pollen substitute, you can sprinkle it on top of the sugar after you slit the bag.

Objection: They need moisture to dissolve the sugar.

Truth: There is plenty of moisture in a winter hive. Moisture from the bees’ respiration will collect and be used to dissolve the sugar.

Objection: Granulated sugar is too big for the bees to dissolve easily.

Truth: You can buy fine-granulated baker’s sugar which is designed to dissolve quickly and easily. I’ve tried it, but I didn’t see much difference in how fast it gets eaten. Now I just use regular granulated.

Objection: Bees can’t find granulated sugar because they can’t smell it (or because it smells bad).

Truth: Sprinkle the outside of the bag with a few drops of essential oil, if you want, and the bees will investigate.

Objection: “You are just plain lazy.”

Truth: By embracing a quick and easy method, I am more apt to get the job done on time instead of putting it off. Granulated sugar on time will save a lot more bees than designer sugar cakes a day late.

The longer I keep bees, the more important simplicity has become. I certainly can’t fault anyone for going through all the stages of complexity—I certainly did—but there is a lot to be said for the KISS method of beekeeping and even more to be said for doing things on time.


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  • so how do you feed your top bar hive? Mine has a screened bottom so granulated sugar isn’t an option. I ended up taking a frame of drone comb and pouring the sugar slurry into that. It worked ok, but it was messy.

    • Ruth,

      I feed my top-bar hive the same way. I lay the bag of sugar on the top bars. My top-bar hive has a screened bottom board as well, but the sugar doesn’t go down there. It basically stays in the bag. If you like, you can put a piece of paper underneath it.

      • How do your bees access the top bar? Mine would have to leave the hive to get to the “attic” as I call it.

        • Ruth,

          I leave out one bar. In the summer it provides good ventilation; in the winter it provides access to the feeding area (attic).

  • Thanks Rusty. I mostly concur. When it was one or two colonies I’d have been devastated to lose any through perceived lack of effort on my part but since then I have tried to keep it simple, still use ready made bakers fondant but portion it out so it’s just a matter of lifting the lid off and banging it on a hole as close to the cluster as possible and shutting them up again. Some need it, some don’t. If they don’t take it I can save it in the freezer for next year.

  • I had to look up what a moisture quilt is as I’d never come across that term. Interesting how a google-search sent me right back to your writeup on how to make moisture quilts and your findings about how they work.

    As for the minimalist approach, I like it. It makes sense. And I’m all about being “lazy” of which I call “working smarter.”

  • Rusty,

    You are right to keep things as simple as possible. Another consideration is temperature. I know when it is coooold, the bees will not touch syrup here in E. TX. My guess is nibbling on warm granulated sugar is more pleasant than sipping ice cold syrup.

  • Hm, seems like you could cut little “windows” on the top of the bag, instead if slits. Hey, thanks for the great idea, nice and easy.

    • Norma,

      You could. Once the sugar is in the hive for a few hours, it develops a crust from all the moisture. The crust keeps it from spilling all over the place.

  • I am on my second winter and have used my modified moisture quilts both years. I have peeked into the hives last year about this time and again last weekend. My bees were out flying Saturday. When I looked and felt, I did not see any moisture. Both falls when I installed the quilts, the moisture just ran off the inner cover. But with the quilts, things have been dry.

    Am I missing something on available moisture in the winter with a quilt installed? So far my hives still seem plenty heavy with honey, and I have not felt the need to feed. Here is hoping they make it another 2 to 2 1/2 months then they can start again next spring.

    ps I am enjoying the comb honey series.

    • Boyd,

      The moisture moves up from the cluster, so it hits the sugar before it gets captured by the quilt. The sugar will absorb some of the moisture and the excess will keep on moving toward the top of the hive. It’s really a cool system.

  • So you just place the the bag (5 lb?) right on the top bars? Slit the top a few times. Would that work in very cold weather? Sub freezing? Seems the bees would have to break cluster to move to the top of the bag?

    A side question: if the cluster is right at the top of the top bars and on them, what is the best way to drive them down (and quickly when cold) so you don’t squash them when placing heavy sugar on the top bars?

    Thanks Rusty. I really appreciate your site and knowledge.

    • Frank,

      1. Yes. I’ve used four-, five-, and 10-pound bags.

      2. In very cold weather, you can slit the sides and let some of the sugar fall onto a piece of paper. Read “Why can bees eat solid sugar in winter” and “Temperature in the hive.” The warmest part of the hive is just above the cluster, and that is where you want to put the sugar.

      3. To get the bees to go down, I lay a piece of paper on them, just float it right on the cluster. They go down to get away from the paper and then I put the sugar bag on top. When I slit the bag, some of the sugar flows onto the paper, which is good. In a few hours it will form a crust and no longer flow. Sometimes, I go back and rip off the bag a few days later. By then, the sugar is in brick form.

  • West Georgia, 13 degrees wind chill -5, first year beekeeper, I just hope I get to try the sugar. Thanks again for another wonderful idea.

  • Hi Rusty,

    This sounds like your thing: DEC. 31, 2013

    Study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that Hazda people of Tanzania, who are among last hunter-gatherer groups on earth, follow pattern similar to that of sharks, honeybees and other foraging animals while hunting for food.


    • Hi Tom,

      Right. I saw a link to this article somewhere but haven’t read it yet . . . but I will. Sounds interesting.

  • I’ve been feeding my bees like this for the past three winters and I love it. It couldn’t be simpler or easier. I use hard insulation over the inner cover instead of a moisture quilt, but otherwise, it’s the same deal. The only thing I did differently this year was put the sugar on as soon as I wrapped the hives for winter in late November. I waited until February last year and one of my colonies starved. The weather is more agreeable in late November too, but still cold enough that the bees won’t bother hauling out the sugar — at least in my local climate.

    • Editor’s Note: For those of you who are reading this post and wondering if granulated sugar will work in really cold weather, let me point out that Phillip lives in Newfoundland. This is a great endorsement of a good system. You can check out his site for more excellent cold weather tips. Thanks, Phillip.

  • Do you guys in the states have access to bakers fondant? Here in the UK we use this a lot for winter feeding. It is a soft sugar paste, normally used for the sticky topping on buns and cakes. We cut it into about 2 lb lumps, wrap it in cling film and place it directly on the frames with a small slit in the bottom. The bees ‘mine’ their way into the pack.

    In late winter I swap for fondant packs with raw self-collected pollen kneaded in to provide the stimulus to get the rearing really going. The slight moisture in the fondant softens the pollen, the bees are very willing to take it and will select in over plain pollen.

    • Julian,

      Baker’s fondant is available here, but I have never tried it due to the cost. However, it makes sense that the moisture in the fondant would keep the pollen from drying out. I may try it as an experiment. Thanks for the tip!

  • Rusty: I want to make two overnight splits this spring like you described in a past session but I cannot find information on whether or not I have to have drone brood for the new hive or will the new reared queen mate with drones from a nearby hive…I really enjoy reading you, thanks…Phil

    • Phil,

      You don’t need drone brood in the new hive, but drones have to be present in your area of the world. Ideally, you want your queen to mate with drones from some other apiary–not your own–because you want to avoid inbreeding.

      Inbreeding results in high numbers of diploid drones, which you can read about here: “What they didn’t teach you in bee school.”

  • Any advice if you have a colony with dysentery this time of year. There is no mess inside the colony but there are many bees out in the snow.

    For now I added granulated sugar dosed with essential HBH.

    Thanks Rusty

    • Jeff,

      Sounds like they have some honey with a high ash content. I think you did the right thing. Refined sugar, which has very little ash, should offset their honey supply, and the HBH will act like a vitamin pill. With no mess inside, I think you caught it in time.

      Bees often eat the sugar before the honey. If they switch to the sugar, they will probably be fine. The only other thing I can think of would be to remove any frames of dark honey, but it is probably too cold for that, so I would stick with your present course.

  • Have heard other “lazy beekeepers” talk about just dumping sugar on newspaper and spraying with water. I love the simplicity of just setting the whole bag on top of the frames!! Sometimes, I think we beekeepers over think and over care for the bees. Feral hives manage to survive without our help in the wild! We need to just care for the problems we create by putting them in man-made hives, and leave the rest to the bees!

  • Since then we have had a break in temperatures, while wet, it has reached 7-8 °C a couple of times over the last few days. While still a little low it may be enough for the bees to poop.

    Last year I added pollen substitute to candy boards on some colonies, I lost half my colonies to dysentery by late February/early March. It cut my colonies in half. I have learned that anything laced with pollen will remain out of the hives until temperatures reach 10°C. This year’s bees look much healthier than last year’s bees for the same point in the winter even though it has been much colder.

    Thanks Rusty. It is nice to get an opinion from someone else.

    • Jeff,

      Yesterday and today may bees have been out flying. I was so surprised. Yesterday, I walked into what I thought was a spider on an invisible thread. But when I looked up, there was nothing overhead but sky–nothing to hang a thread from. On closer look, it was a honey bee carrying a dead bee. It must have been really hard for her because she was almost still in the air, hovering with a dead body bigger than she was.

      I digress, but it sure helps the dysentery thing if you get a couple warm days. I’m always happy to see them.

  • Checked my 2 hives today (1/18/14). The wood shavings of the moisture quilt above the stronger colony have been consistently warm and moist. I just stir them up a bit to help them dry out. Today they were cold and frosty. I looked through the screen bottom and most of the sugar block was eaten. So I tilted the moisture quilt up quickly and placed another sugar block in there. And I saw no signs of life. I didn’t want to leave the top open long enough to really peer down between the frames to see if there was a small cluster down there. So just hope for the best.

    The weaker colony’s moisture quilt shavings have always been dry. I peeked through their screen and it does not look like the sugar disk has been touched. I’ve suspected this colony succumbed to the Michigan cold a couple weeks ago. There was a cluster a month ago.

    HOWEVER, we got 1/2″ of snow 2 days ago and there were 5 or 6 bees on top of the fresh snow in front of this hive. What? One poor girl fell into the snow and left a 6″ path through the fresh snow back towards the hive before she couldn’t go any further.

    So there were still bees in there a couple days ago. In the hive I thought dead. Who knows? I’ll check the sugar blocks periodically and maybe they’ll surprise me. If they do, I should have some good survivor stock after this winter. Whewwww!

    • Frank,

      On several occasions I’ve had colonies that I was sure were dead, only to have them surprise me. You are right not to disturb them to much, feed, and hope for the best at this point.

  • I love your blog. I am bee obsessed right now, but due to some life set backs I haven’t been able to start keeping them yet.

    You give so much great information that I can’t wait until my first chance at it next year.

  • Hi,

    Thank for your time to explain so much about bees! Thank you. Because my English is not so good I didn´t understand what you meant with “cover it with super.” Can you post a photo please. I would like to help bees out, here in Portugal. My garden is full of them, and I would love to know more and help them out more.

    Thank you once again.
    Best regards,
    Ana Rita

    • Ana,

      Are you a beekeeper? A super is just a type of box used on managed bee hives. It contains space for combs and goes on top of the brood boxes (or main nesting area).

      • Hello,

        Thank you for your answer.

        Tell me, I have a small garden, with a pool, cats, birds, dogs … do you think it is a good idea to put up a bee hive? I´m thinking about taking a beekeeper course, but what would I do with it next!?!? So do you think I could put up a hive here?

        Best regards,

        • Rita,

          I cannot answer your question. You need to figure out how much space you have, how close the neighbors are, what the local regulations say, etc. If you go to a beekeeping course, you will learn a lot of the answers to these and similar questions.

  • You may remember I have a metric shit-ton of bees that scarfed down their honey in late summer. I fed heavily into the fall. When I locked down the hive around Thanksgiving I put in a four-pound bag of sugar. Have a couple hundred dead bees on the bottom screen but otherwise buzzing strong. Any guidance on how soon I should be looking to add another bag? Back and forth between flying weather 50s and nighttime temps well below freezing. Have a 45 degree day coming up that may be my last chance for a while but don’t want to disturb unnecessarily. Though my 5-year-old is just itching to get in there.

    • Joanna,

      Four pounds of sugar isn’t a lot. I would take advantage of any warmish day and add more. I added some on a 35-degree day last week—fast though. Really fast.

  • Will do. Thanks. Will try to see status of existing four pound to judge when need more next. Appreciate your help as always

  • How do bees “eat” the granulated sugar? I have watched them and can’t figure it out…

    • Margaret,

      Granulated sugar has to be dissolved before it can be eaten by bees. In a hive, moisture from the cluster of bees condenses on the surface of the sugar and then the bees can lick it up. Outside, it would have to accumulate moisture from the air. You are correct that they can’t eat it in its hard form.

      • Well, I wonder what the heck the bees are doing to the sugar I put out… I don’t get up early enough for the bees… so I put feeders with a thick coat of sugar on it. They certainly work hard on it… especially when it clumps together… I watched them… couldn’t decide how they were “eating” it… and it looked like they were trying to fly off with bigger pieces carried by multiple bees… very interesting to watch… but have no idea what they are doing.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Is the bag dry or do you wet it slightly so they can chew through it easier?

    Thanks Rusty..

    • Steve,

      I put mine in dry and it gets damp in just a few hours from colony respiration. But I don’t see any harm in wetting it, especially if it makes you more comfortable with the process.

  • October in Michigan and making the decision from your blog to just use dry bakers sugar because I already had it bought for sugar boards. I will use the ekes that my hubby built for sugar boards and add some HBH? Good idea or not? To add to the smorgasbord of “foods” I will also add grease patties and HBH pollen patties. Watch them closely for needing more sugar in November and again in December and always looking for signs of “life”. My hives have their own honey stores in supers that weren’t queen excluded. Leave or take off?

    • Linda,

      If it were me, I would leave them on. Honey is the best food for bees. Although sugar is a great substitute that can get your bees through the winter, honey should always be first choice.

  • Hey, Rusty et al, I would love it if writers would automatically include their region. It would help to compare to local conditions and efforts. Thanks!

    Margot, Minnesota

  • In early spring. Do I have to turn my left over sugar cakes into syrup? Or can I just leave them in the hive as is. Until we get some plants flowering that is.

    • Sandy,

      When the bees stop eating them, I throw them in a bucket and keep them for fall, but you can make syrup if you want. Seems like a lot of work unless you need syrup for some reason.

  • Thanks for the reply Rusty. Still a newbie here after two years. Just kept seeing posts about turning the sugar cakes into syrup for spring feeding. Couldn’t understand why. So I thought I’d put the question to the most knowledgeable and honest site out there. Your site has helped me through many a dilemma. Thanks again.

    • Sandy,

      I’ve found that when winter sneaks up in a hurry, it’s nice to have those sugar cakes ready to go.

  • By the way. I am in southern Ontario Canada. Looks like an early spring up this way. Bees have been flying for a couple of weeks now. Just on warm sunny days so far.

    • And down here in western Washington we’re having record rain for March. It’s something like five inches above normal already. Depressing.

  • This is my tb hive’s first winter here in Eastern Washington, USDA zone 5. As I read about feeding the bees straight sugar from a bag, I am wondering if your bag is plastic or paper? Because I can’t imagine my plastic bag of sugar absorbing any moisture from the colony’s respiration. Secondly, how do the bees maneuver between the the insulation and the bag of sugar to get to the slits you’ve made? We had an early snow and I haven’t winterized my bees yet, mostly out of analysis paralysis and not wanting to do it wrong. Your minimalist approach seems a godsend, but I just have those concerns. Thanks for all the great info, I have learned so much through your responses to other people’s comments, too.

  • I really like the idea of a bag of sugar but does putting an empty super on leave too much space for the bees to keep warm?

    • Bonnie,

      Honey bees make no attempt to keep the hive warm; they are only concerned with the warmth of the cluster. The warm moist air that escapes from the cluster rises and condenses on the dry sugar, making it edible for them. If you have insulation above that, it will slow down the heat loss from the interior of the hive.

  • Rusty, knowing how you prefer to feed them their own honey rather than sugar, do you think it would work to lay a honey frame down flat on top of the inner cover? Say, January just lift the lid and place tge frame down? (My lids are gabled, so one frame would fit)

    • Marty,

      I’ve done that many times. I find they generally eat from the top side and I have to eventually turn the frame over.

  • Hi Rusty,

    This may be a dumb question, but are the bags that contain the sugar, just paper bags they come in? A plastic zip lock? I have been buying sugar in 25 pound bags from a warehouse store, so not sure what to put a smaller amount in, on top of the brood box. Thank you so much for all the work you do on this site, it has been very helpful to me!

    • Annie,

      If they are small four- or five-pound bags, I use the paper bag it came in. When I buy 50-pound bags, I pour it in paper plates or paper containers like the kind they sell french fries in, and then squirt a little water on the surface. The water keeps it from blowing away until you get it to the hive. Then moisture from the colony soon makes it rock hard.

  • Would a rim used for summer feeding work as well? And if I have a moisture board would that suffice?

    • Rachel,

      Any rim or eke would work as long as it’s big enough for whatever you want to put in there. And, yes, a moisture board is fine.